The Invisible City: Existence And Resistance In The Peripheries Of Lisbon


The neighborhood officially known as Moinho das Rolas lies 20km from central Lisbon — six concrete apartment blocks, three either side of a dead-end road, each five stories high. Less than 300 meters to the south is a business technology park, where some residents work as cleaners and service staff. To the north, a vast of expanse of shrubland lies purposefully vacant, increasing daily in real-estate value. Under their shadow, to the west, a sloping green bank leads down to the Ribeira da Lage valley; on the opposite bank, the ruins of an old farm are visible.

Within this estate, residents have informally occupied the maintenance spaces of their buildings for some 15 years. In the early days, a group of young people created a social center, “Braku Bagda”, with space for meetings, communal eating and freestyle rap battles. The ceiling was adorned with the building’s sewerage pipework; but the walls were decorated with graffiti. Later, the larger, adjacent maintenance space was also occupied — festival floats and banners are now stored alongside a makeshift gym, dance hall and party venue. The ongoing occupation of these spaces is an alternative to renting the estate’s commercial units — of which there are many, lying empty. Meanwhile, people run small informal catering businesses from their homes or provide services such as hairdressing. The residents of Moinho das Rolas have also used the green space around the apartment buildings to create farming allotments. To reach the other side of the valley, a wooden bridge has been built, along with a pump to fetch water from the river.

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The valley and farming allotments around Curraleira / António Brito Guterres (2017).

The murals on the outer walls of the estate offer some important cultural and historical markers; the tag of well-known homegrown rap group, TWA; a black panther; and the name Miraflor, locating us in the Portuguese-African crioulo language, within the resistance of the Black movement, but also in a neighborhood originally situated 10 kilometers away from here — and long disappeared. For, Moinho das Rolas is a rehousing project, home to some 900 residents, almost all first-, second- and third generation immigrants of African (mainly Cape Verdean) descent and, moreover, descendants of the bairros de barracas, the ‘shanty-town’ settlements that defined the peripheries of Lisbon for most of the 20th century. The autonomous practices of Moinho das Rolas, expressed in the occupation and subversion of space, are not limited to this one estate. The peripheries of Lisbon, often overlooked and constantly invisibilized by processes such as mediafication, tourism and real estate speculation, contain deeply resilient networks and a rich history of self-building, urban farming, community activism, cultural resistance and informal education.

Lisbon grew rapidly in the 20th century: between the 1960s and 1990s, its population swelled from several hundred thousand, to three million. From the 1950s there was a rural exodus in Portugal: people flocked from the impoverished countryside to the capital in search of work. Following the 1974 Revolution, which spelled the end for both the Fascist dictatorship and Portuguese overseas colonialism, settlers returned from the newly-independent former colonies, alongside immigrants fleeing war, political instability, and economic insecurity.

During these migrations, it was on the endlands of the city that new settlements were created — close to industry, on vacant plots of land, on the edges of existing municipalities, or on disused military roads. New arrivals to the city tended to follow family and community ties. These emerging neighborhoods were often characterized by their residents’ origins, be they in Santiago, Cape Verde, or Beira, Portugal. Forced to the edges of the existing formal city by social and economic exclusion, the bairros de barracas, as they became known — often pejoratively — were never legalized, but nonetheless patronized by the State: people were pushed onto specific sites, construction material was subsidized, and taxes were collected on occupied land. The periphery nonetheless emerged around the formal city with almost no official planning. It was shaped by the hands of community organizations, local constructors and informal architects, who produced self-built neighborhoods of brick and tin. For many years, one of the most important forms of construction in this “Great Imperial” city was in fact self-building. “Our parents built their houses from scratch; when they arrived in Portugal it was all shacks — shacks made of wood and plastic,” recalls Jose Maria “Sinho” Baessa de Pina, who grew up in the Fontainhas neighborhood. “When I was young, if you saw a truck bringing sand into the bairro, you didn’t need to be asked — everyone would grab a bucket and go help, there was solidarity; you’d have a cousin who would paint, another cousin who’d lay bricks… everything was done by the community, that’s how the bairro was built.”

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Young residents from the Vale da Amoreira housing estate, in the greater Lisbon area / António Brito Guterres

In the almost total absence of the State, these neighborhoods developed communal practices, as a source of resilience. These practices drew both on the strength of the community and on the local environment. Urban farming for example, in small (often shared) allotments, became incredibly important in many neighborhoods. This land was not only used for subsistence farming (including raising animals — mostly chickens, goats and sheep) but also provided a means of cultural expression: Cape Verdean communities grew sugar cane for their traditional grog; whilst the Cali Gypsies living in Curraleira and Queluz, kept horses. On many sites, such as the bairros of 6 de Maio and Pedreira dos Hungaros, football pitches were constructed.

Within the bairros, informal economic activities specific to the needs of communities thrived, such as community creches enabling local women to work. In Cape Verdean and Bissau Guinean bairros like Marianas and Pedreira dos Húngaros, some women pooled a portion of their salaries into crowdfunds that could provide for larger investments such as plane tickets, construction materials, or white goods. A similar arrangement existed in many communities for the collective funding of funerals or repatriation of bodies, and funeral wakes were held in communal spaces. Most bars, cafes, restaurants, shops provided not only services and goods, but also meeting spaces, as did cultural centers such as the Moinho da Juventude in the Cova da Moura neighborhood.

Such practices, specific and relevant to their geographical locations, have survived in some of the areas that participated in the short-lived, utopian rehousing program SAAL (The Local Outreach Support Service), created after the 1974 revolution. Under SAAL, residents formed associations that collaborated with architects on participative projects to create better housing conditions, resulting in the creation of communal property. Organizations like the Horizonte housing cooperative and residents committee created by the community of Curraleira would have been impossible in the years of the dictatorship, and nurtured the spirit of collective organizing and participation. Under SAAL, Curraleira gained public bathrooms, a football pitch and some housing; however, the program came to an abrupt end in the political upheaval that followed the revolution.

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Residents of Adroana harvesting on their allotments / António Brito Guterres (2017)

In the decades following the collapse of SAAL, the Portuguese State approach to housing can be defined by the more-or-less total absence of social housing policy until 1993, when the government launched the audacious, nationwide and ongoing Dedicated Rehousing Program, PER, whose specific objective was to “do away with the barracas” once and for all. It was based on the principles that demolishing inadequate housing could solve the social inequalities associated with it, and that new housing could influence lifestyle. A miserable interpretation of the Portuguese Constitutional Article guaranteeing the “Right to Housing,” its greatest legacy has been the creation of ghettos and the concretization of social exclusion. Whilst the bairros de barracas had suffered from poor infrastructure and a total lack of government support — unlike the SAAL program which provided for participative self-building with the technical expertise of architects and engineers — their residents had nonetheless been not only the creators but also the keepers of their homes, with a real sense of community ownership. Community entrepreneur Silvino “Binu” Furtado from the (self-built and still-standing) Cova de Moura neighborhood, lives in the house his father built in the 1960s: “It’s as if the bairro is a part of you. Every corner is a piece of history, every house has a story.” In neighborhoods subjected to the PER, however, the government turned residents into paying tenants of the State: it also disrupted and often destroyed practices of resistance in the peripheries.

There are, in these later rehousing policies, echoes of the white settler colonialism which Portugal practiced to a greater extent than almost any other European colonizer in Africa. Spatially, the “civilized” city was the beating heart of Portuguese settler colonialism; the urban centers of Luanda (Angola) and Lourenço Marques (Maputo, Mozambique), for example, were highly coveted territories — and were popular among other European colonials in Africa — known for their sophistication, leisure and cosmopolitanism. Access to these cities, under colonial rule, was based on the politics of assimilation, with a kind of ‘Portuguese-ness,’ or whiteness, as the ultimate goal: Africans wanting “in” were expected to renounce African languages, dress and religion, in favor of Portuguese, Catholicism, and European attire. Outside the main cities in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau, large-scale rehousing programs (“reagrupamentos”, or regroupings) were attempted, destroying communities by interrupting social, economic and cultural networks and imposing cultural norms.

Back in Portugal, under the PER, the State proceeded from the mid-1990s to demolish the bairros de barracas, largely home to racialized communities, which were now seen as both “illegal and “problematic.” They replaced them with concrete housing blocks, concretizing the racial hierarchies already well-established in Portugal. That the PER was introduced soon after Portugal joined the European Union, is not a coincidence; the 1990s were a definitive moment in the Europeanization of Portugal, as it sought to shed its image as the poor man of the region and assert its European (and white) credentials.

Whilst it can claim to have forcibly rehoused tens of thousands — its original catchment included almost 50,000 families nationwide — it is abundantly clear that the PER has not alleviated social exclusion; much to the contrary. From its outset, the program had two major shortcomings. Firstly, unlike the SAAL project, it was not participative but based on top-down planning under which residents had no power to contribute to their rehousing. Secondly, since the PER took place at a time when Lisbon was growing, many bairros were no longer as peripheral as they had been, and the land on which they lay was rapidly increasing in value. Many local councils took the opportunity to free up valuable land by moving residents to new peripheries, far from the areas where they originally lived. Both of these mistakes have left a lasting legacy.

As a consequence, the PER rehousing process was bureaucratic, chaotic, and traumatic for many. Families, especially those spanning more or one dwelling, were separated; and entire communities were rehoused far from their original homes. During the televised demolition of Pedreira dos Húngaros in 2003, dozens of tearful residents sheltered from the pouring rain in a marquee with a brass band and a spit-roast pig and watched their former homes being torn down. This perverse, state-orchestrated spectacle recast the demolition of the shanty towns as a mark of Portugal’s progress, as the country strived towards “modernity” – despite the continued elusiveness of economic stability.

There was little in the way of social housing in Portugal on this scale before the PER began, and so the rehousing estates — bairros sociais — were purpose-built. One of the reasons communities have struggled with the move into housing blocks is the architecture itself. Unlike the bairros de barracas, which were not only community-built but also comprised a complex overlapping of private and communal spaces, the apartment blocks closed residents off in compartmental concrete boxes. It was now possible to arrive and leave without seeing half the people who would previously have been encountered on a short walk through the old neighborhood. The loss of this particular way of socializing was felt acutely, and profoundly affected the sense of community, as well as the way communities functioned. “I consider this a ghetto,” says Sinho, who now lives in the Casal da Boba/São Bras rehousing estate. “They pushed us into here, creating segregation and discrimination. They say it’s dangerous and then they come here and police in a completely different way to the rest of Lisbon. You can see that they are scared of us.”

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Sinho inside Cavaleiros de Sáo Brás, the organization he runs at the Casal da Boba estate housing former residents of Fontaínhas. / Ana Naomi de Sousa (2017).

The layout of the bairros de barracas had also allowed people to feel safe within them, knowing that the police would not (and could not) enter, because of their particular morphology. However, the rehousing projects became, almost immediately, the target of heavy policing: in Casal da Boba/São Bras, for example, police stations were actually planned and built into the estates from the outset. The state-of-exception policing in areas like Amadora is characterized by arbitrary and aggressive stop-and-search; the deployment of heavily armed, often masked special forces in tanks or motorbike convoys, and the supposedly-casual policing of residential public spaces by armed policeman several times a day. In this way, racialized neighborhoods have become a test-site for weapons and for militarized urban police training. There is an increased number of detainees and prisoners from specific areas and police have been responsible for the killings of a number of people, including children. One of the most appalling examples was of Elson “Kuku” Sanches, a 14-year old boy who was shot in the neck at point blank range by a policeman in 2009. The (successful) case for the policeman’s defense, despite his having shot and killed an innocent and unarmed child, depended heavily on the implicit understanding that the neighborhood where Kuku was killed, was “dangerous,” and that its residents, including children, might be legitimately suspected of a crime, at any given moment. “The only people who were punished were the kid and his mother,” says Flavio “LBC” Almada, a well-known educator and activist from Cova da Moura.

Through a program which created hostile architecture and entrenched segregation, forcibly separated decades-old communities and subjected populations to police surveillance and violence, the PER systematically destroyed the various forms of resistance that been mounted in the old neighborhoods, without providing a solution to the exclusion or economic precarity their residents had always faced. However, as can be seen from the basements to the slopes of Moinho das Rolas, this does not mean that communities stopped resisting.

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Aspects of the local economy of Curraleira neighborhood/António Brito Guterres (2017).

On the eastern borders of the old city is a neighborhood still referred to by its residents as Curraleira (a name you will no longer find on any maps, another consequence of the PER), which has existed since the 1930s. A communal ethos has helped the local community, which includes many Gypsy/Cigano residents, through years of struggle. In 1975, when a terrible fire swept through the neighborhood and destroyed many of the self-built houses, displacing hundreds, the community called on the armed revolutionary group, LUAR (Liga de União e Acção Revolucionária or United League for Revolutionary Action), for assistance. Together they went on to publicly occupy apartments in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the city and the episode became a turning point for left-wing parties in recognizing occupation as a legitimate tactic in housing struggles. On the empty land where the barracas once stood, there is now an iron cross, memorializing a child who died in the fire. Fiercely protected by the community, despite various attempted interventions, it is also a point of reference to locate the former sites of houses and other spaces in the old bairro. Horses are still raised and ridden in Curraleira, as well as pigs, geese, sheep, and goats — despite the pressure from the sanitary institutions to put an end to these practices — and communal and family allotments are tended and farmed. For many years football games were played in the middle of the street and residents would block the roads from traffic to allow them to take place uninterrupted. One day, a local football club (from outside the community) installed an artificial grass pitch on the land, but demanded a fee for its use. On the same night, youths from the neighborhood stripped the grass from the pitch, occupied a commercial space in a building and installed it there instead.

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Aspects of the local economy of Curraleira neighborhood / António Brito Guterres (2017).

In all of these day-to-day acts of resistance, the Portuguese spoken in Curraleira is inflected with Romanon, a Calo dialect of the Romani language. It is used by Gypsy and non-Gypsy residents alike, whether in conversation with their neighbors or with policemen. In this proud and determined preservation of language, there are parallels with the use of Cape Verdean Crioulo in other neighborhoods. In the peripheries of Lisbon, it’s the variant from the island of Santiago that is most dominant, though variants from other islands and from Guinea Bissau are also used. Because it was the daily language of the Cape Verdean residents of many of the bairros de barracas, it has also become the language of many of the bairros sociais that followed them, including among people who are not Cape Verdean. This is partly a result of the overlapping of communities (e.g. at school), but primarily due to the importance and widespread dissemination of Crioulo rap music.

From 2005, increased access to digital media — bolstered by State-sponsoring of computers and internet connections for underprivileged school pupils — and the growth of YouTube, revolutionized informal music production in Portugal. It made the peripheral locations of the different bairros, as well as the distances and poor transport links between them, less significant. Online, physically-distanced groups and individuals were able to create spaces of dialogue and exchange. Productions recorded in improvised homemade studios, in a non-official language, could now be viewed and shared throughout the Lusophone diaspora and beyond. Videos from stars of this circuit, such as Vado Mas Ki Az, Apollo G, Loreta, Baby Dog and Neh Jah (all singing in Crioulo) have been viewed millions of times. As well as influencing the language variants spoken in the bairros (introducing new words and expressions), rap has seen Crioulo becoming a language spoken and understood by many who are not themselves of Cape Verdean origin or descendance.

Many of the practices of resistance encountered in the peripheries mark not only the communities’ determination to survive, but also their independence from formal, institutional networks and economies. This is visible in a new generation of community associations which, unlike their predecessors of the post-revolutionary era, are not solely dedicated to the material issues of housing, but also seek to discuss suffrage, constitutional rights, anti-racism, etc. This is the case, for example, in the neighborhood organizations Geração Com Futuro in Quinta do Lavrado, Passa Sabi in the Bairro do Rego, and Cavaleiros de São Brás in the Casal da Boba project. These organizations do not exist in isolation but form part of dynamic networks, such as those behind the campaigns to reform Portugal’s contentious nationality law; and for the collection of nationwide statistics based on race and ethnicity, currently outlawed by the Constitution.

There are, furthermore, a number of self-organized grassroots collectives and organizations which span different neighborhoods and communities. Plataforma Gueto, part of the Black movement, is a radical education project which organizes an informal university within different neighborhoods in the peripheries. It also translates, publishes and circulates texts, and documents and denounces racism, particularly in relation to housing, citizenship and police violence. Nu Sta Djunto (meaning: we’re in it together, in Crioulo), an informal collective made up of residents of the neighborhoods in which it is active, emerged in response to the difficulties facing people as a result of the Troika austerity measures. It collects and distributes food and other items to families in need, touring the neighborhoods of the peripheries and holding public events such as children’s activities and familiar, local and traditional cultural performances. There is also the umbrella organization, the Residents Council for the 6 de Maio, Bairro da Torre, and Jamaica neighborhoods. Although located far away from each other, these neighborhoods share the same problem: they are all un-regularized or self-built areas with very poor infrastructure, whose residents were not included in the PER. By organizing and campaigning collectively they have increased their political power in the struggle for adequate rehousing.

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Post boxes marking the entrance to the most prominent
building of the Jamaica neighborhood./ António Brito Guterres (2017)

As the PER nears something of an end in Portugal, the disconnect between the center and the peripheries of Lisbon feels immense. Deprived of good education, full citizenship, employment and, of course, housing; in the face of police violence and decades of stigmatization, this is the blunt edge of the State and the city’s racialized communities are disproportionately affected And yet, the dramatic tourism boom now underway in Portugal rests very much on the image of a “global city” — “Historical Lisbon, Global City” is the motto for Lisbon’s candidacy for UNESCO World Heritage status — proud of its imperial past and multicultural influences the enduring myth of “LusoTropicalism.” The continued invisibility and ostracization of the city’s peripheries is, for this strategy to function and seem believable, not only convenient but wholly necessary. But it is also impossible. The populations of the peripheries will continue, through their cultures of meaningful community and autonomous organization, to make their presence felt in the city, in their own way.

By documenting and recounting the actions and systems of resistance detailed in this piece, the authors hope to draw attention to a history which in both angering and inspiring; from which there is as much to learn, as there is to lament. A history which refuses to remain invisible; or to be silenced.